You don't need to tell anyone who is currently pregnant or has been pregnant that those nine months are pretty significant. But they aren't just an amazing period of change and transition for us; more and more research points to it being an incredibly crucial time for our babies-to-be, as well.
Science journalist Annie Murphy Paul found herself intrigued by the growing body of research surrounding the effects the fetal environment has on the baby ... and became more fascinated with the subject when she become pregnant with her second son. Her research became her book Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, which has been drawing a lot of attention since it came out last month. She talked with me about the book, what she learned, and what she hopes the rest of us take away from her work.
What was your inspiration for writing the book? Was it truly your second pregnancy, or did that serve as a nice narrative device?
First, I'm a science writer, so I always look for fresh and interesting and new ideas to write about. A few years ago, in looking through journals and research in biology and social science, I started to see a lot focused on the prenatal period. (We) have always thought the origins of our characteristics are genes, which are delivered at the moment of conception, or our childhood rearing environment. It struck me as a new chapter in the nature/nurture debate, and I started pursuing it as a science writer ... (When I became pregnant) it took on more personal relevance and importance to write the book from perspective of a science writer and as a pregnant woman.
What was the biggest surprise for you that you uncovered while researching the book?
I think it was the finding that moderate stress is beneficial for the fetus. Stress is something that pregnant women worry a lot about. I’m a working mother, I’m harried, and think, “Gosh, I’m so worn down and so stressed out ... is this hurting my fetus?”
While the research does suggest traumatic stress can indeed be harmful to the fetus, a bit of regular stress makes the brain mature faster. If any of us take a test, we do better if we’re a little nervous than if we’re totally relaxed. We think of stress as all bad when pregnant, and it turns out not to be the case.
That, and chocolate being associated with a lower risk of preeclampsia!
Do you find that, in the reaction to the book, that people go on the defensive? We seem to be so polarized now that we can’t hear that someone else did something different and not feel judged or judgmental.
Unlike most scientific research (this) hits people in a very emotional and personal place. I feel this research is real, and we’re only going to be hearing more about it .... We can let it drive us crazy, which is easy to do when you’re just hearing bits and pieces and dribs and drabs that you read in the paper or see online, or you could try to see the larger picture and put it in the scientific perspective. With drinking, there is a different study out every other week that tells you something different. It can easily drive you crazy. If you take the time to have someone like me actively guide you through this literature and add some cultural and historical perspective on drinking or diet during pregnancy, and then add some personal reflections, it’s not part of the problem, it’s one potential solution.
This is certainly not remotely a scold-y pregnancy book in tone; that said, if you’re reading this and are not/did not do everything optimally during pregnancy, it can make you feel seriously guilty for not doing so. What was your intent in diving into how crucial those in-utero nine months are?
What to me is one of the most important things in the book is that there is no such thing as a perfect pregnancy. The fetus is shaped and molded to the particular world they’re going to encounter on the other side of the womb, by the woman and the world she lives in. We’re shaping and forming our children before they are even born; there is something beautiful about that.
What would you like readers to take away from the book?
The big takeaway for me is that pregnancy is itself a really crucial, important, dynamic time. That shouldn’t only be important to pregnant women themselves; their health and well-being affect everyone ... as their children become students, workers, and citizens. Pregnancy is not a nine-month wait for the big event of birth; it’s a crucial period unto itself, and we should have more respect and devote more resources to making sure every woman’s pregnancy is a sound and secure and healthy one.
The book is quite good; Murphy Paul takes what could be boring, dry scientific facts and makes them come alive with personal stories, pithy quotes from researchers, and an intelligent but engaging style that kept me reading. If you're currently pregnant (or just a science geek), I'd call it a must-read.
Image via Simon and Schuster